Rurrenabaque: The sky is thick with El Chaqueo (the Big Smoke) as we enter the Amazon lowlands, producing spectacular sunsets, but reducing visibility such that the opposite bank of the River Beni is impossible to see. The smoke is the result of seasonal burning of savannah and rainforest to clear fields for agriculture and grazing, and it’s a major hazard. Local farmers believe the thick fug produces rain clouds, ensuring a good harvest, but in reality the opposite occurs: the deforestation leads to worsening drought and poorer forestry conditions, exacerbating the situation. According to World Bank studies, around 300,000 hectares of Bolivia’s forest are lost annually, owing to el chaqueo.
The laid-back settlement of Rurrenabaque (a corruption of the Tacana name meaning ‘Ravine of Ducks’) is surrounded by karst-like hills and perched on the edge of the rushing Beni (‘Wind’ river). Once the daytime scooters and market chitter chatter have ceased, the damp air saturates with frogs and cicadas, bird whistles and bat clicks – the sounds of the Amazon. Here, we are warm and low for the first time in nearly two months and it feels good just to breathe this buzzing air. The downside of all this life, of course, is the mosquitoes, which relentlessly bite any exposed skin no matter how much DEET we apply. And this is the dry season…
We board a dugout for a 2.5 hour ride down river to the privately maintained reserve of Serere. The river is wide and fast, banked on either side by rainforest that becomes more pristine the further we travel. We pass the wood and palm, and wood and tarpaulin lean-tos of nomadic tribes, who camp close to the river bank to fish, during this dry season when the forest is relatively poor in fruit and other foods. Children with distended bellies trawl the banks for snacks, easy prey for the many caiman, stingrays and pirhanas that lurk beneath the river’s surface.
Fallen trees, partially submerged, provide sunbathing spots for turtles that group together in lines and piled one on top of the other. In the next couple of weeks they will swim to the sand bars and lay their eggs.
We spot a couple of capybaras (giant American rodents), who pose stock-still, hoping we don’t see them. Birds of every colour and size screech and call overhead. We see herons and macaws, fish eagles and vultures, small wading birds, tiny bright hummingbirds and kingfishers.
A clearing in the forest on the right bank reveals a busy illegal timber port with logs of mahogany, cedar and other hardwoods stacked high and ready for barging out. Authorities periodically confiscate a few logs, but the trade is too lucrative for bribed officials and all else concerned for anything effective to be done.
Further along, another clearing contains a group of gold miners, churning up the earth and flushing mercury and other toxins into the river.
We’re two hours into our journey when out of the corner of my eye I recognise the stringy black, hairy arm of a spider monkey reaching out of the jacket pocket worn by our host, Rosa Maria Ruiz. She pulls the 4-week-old monkey fully out and begins feeding him a banana. He eats it in huge bites that take a few millimetres off the fruit, and pauses to crinkle his face up at ours in a way that makes the whole boat burst out laughing. We make faces at each other for a while, until he is diverted by his desert, a syringe of milk. The tiny monkey was rescued from his mother, who was shot for bushmeat, and Rosa is nursing him back to health after his chest was split open by the hunters. In time, she will release him into her protected reserve.
Our boat pulls into a spot on the bank marked by steps cut into the mud and stone, and we climb up into bamboo forest that quickly turns to rainforest. We walk for two kilometres, past giant trees, whose buttress roots dwarf us, strangler figs that knot themselves into plaits and twists and a palm tree that ‘walks’ around the forest dropping new roots in the direction of light channels.
Beside our path, the forest is alive with noise and movement: the scurrying of small mammals, the crashing of monkeys in the canopy and countless shrieks and alarms of the many birds calling to each other through the dense foliage.
I think Charles Darwin probably described it best, when he first entered the Amazon in 1832:
“It is hard to say what set of objects is the most striking: the general luxuriance of the vegetation bears the victory, the elegance of the grasses, the novelty of the parasitical plants, the beauty of the flowers, the glossy green of the foliage, all tend to this end. A most paradoxical mixture of sound and silence pervades the shady parts of the wood: the noise from the insects is so loud that in the evening it can be heard even in a vessel anchored several hundred yards from the shore: yet within the forest a universal stillness appears to reign. To a person fond of natural history such a day as this brings with it pleasure more acute than he may ever again experience.”
Eventually we reach a small clearing in the forest housing a two-storey wooden construction with walls of mosquito nets and hammocks strung out overlooking a large lake. A blue and yellow macaw screeches a welcome from its vantage point high in a cocoa tree. The lake ripples with fish and stingrays, reflecting the swoop of low-flying kingfishers.
We are shown to our cabin, a spacious, raised wooden platform with a roof that is open on all sides to the forest, save for the mosquito netting. There is no power here, so we rely on moonlight, candles and our torches to see after dark. We are serenaded at dusk and dawn by the low rumble of howler monkeys, the multitude of birds and insects and the unidentifiable noises that permeate through the forest.
The next few days are spent in a happy succession of walks through the jungle, boating on the reserve’s several lakes and in general wonderment at the various animals we find. We disturb tarantulas, which scurry back into their white sock nests, find countless paths of busy leafcutter ants (which consume more than 10% of all available leaves in the world’s neotropical zones each year, although they don’t eat the leaves but harvest a fungus that grows on collected leaf bundles), massive bullet ants, army ants, and other types of bitey ants, see tribes of playful monkeys, including howler, capuchins, capuchinos (!) and spider monkeys.
We see the day turn to night as birds desert the skies and are replaced by bats.
We spend a while with the bizarre frilly headed, horned Serere bird (the Hoatzin), whose chicks are the only winged creature since pterodactyls to feature claws on its wings that help the creatures climb up muddy banks. They have an ugly barking song worse than the cormorants’ but they are quite absorbing to watch. They are one of the few creatures to maintain a healthy population, while others become increasingly endangered, on account of their terrible smell which means no one hunts them for food.
The flora is equally fascinating: vines that when sliced spurt drinking water, nuts sweet as coconuts and rich in protein, medicinal plants that heal wounds, cure arthritis and sooth insect bites, trees with bark like paper and others that taste of garlic.
Coatis and possums climb the trees and wild pigs and peccaries rustle in the undergrowth. The animals are impossible to see most of the time, but we get enough rewarding glimpses to keep us obsessively looking.
When we’re not searching for wildlife, I seek out Rosa Maria, a woman with such a rich and fascinating history that there is only space for a fraction of it here. After a childhood and youth spent living with the indigenous Tacana people, she began during the 1980s and 90s to help these disparate communities organise into political groups that could claim land titles and that way ensure their ancestral areas were safeguarded from exploitation by mining and other commercial interests.
It was out of this work that Rosa Maria first conceived a plan for a large national park, which would protect one of the wold’s most diverse forestry, home to more than 1000 species in habitats that range from high Andean glaciers, to cloud forest, dry forest, pampas and rainforest. The park, home to 1,700 people would be created with the full support and participation of these inhabitants, and involve plans for sustainable tourism that would provide livelihoods for the park’s tribes that encourage the protection of its wildlife.
Madidi National Park opened in 1995: 4.7 million acres of pristine forest. By 2001, Rosa had set up an eco lodge with cabins in the park and was ready to receive her first guests who would explore guided trails that led through carefully prepared communities. But there was a problem. In 2000, she was featured for her efforts in a large National Geographic article, which had brought a certain amount of international support from donors and tourists wanting to work with her. The former dictator (granted US asylum by George W Bush, but wanted on charges of genocide in Bolivia) was greedy for a slice of this eco-tourism, and his cronies were making good money out of logging and trafficking animals from the park, all of which Rosa Maria was inconveniently in the way of.
A sustained effort by the government and park authorities to discredit her had some small success, but still she clung on, continuing to work from the house she’d lived in for 30 years. Death threats were made and an assassin was hired. Her house was burned down with her staff inside. The military turned up with machine guns and police, successfully evicting her from her property and the park, destroying her buildings and stealing her personal belongings.
A year later, revolution that began in El Alto ousted the dictatorship and installed a new leader. Then Evo Morales was elected. Rosa Maria was invited to the justice ministry for meetings to try to reinstate and compensate her, but one month later, during a routine swim across her lake, she was attacked by a black caiman that nearly killed her. She spent three years in hospital having surgery to save her life and then to restore some function in her right leg, emerging only last year.
Now, she says, she wants to move on. She cannot stop the logging and hunting of wild animals in Madidi, but she’s having some success stopping it on her own small 8000 hectare Serere reserve. Evo is accelerating the land titling of indigenous groups in the area, so she is shifting her focus to working with these communities to help provide them with sustainable livelihoods, hoping that eco tourism may help the Tacana people bordering her Serere land in the way she had hoped that Madidi might have done for many more people, who lacking alternatives, continue to hunt, log or mine for gold.
Rosa Maria truly is a remarkable woman, and the land she tends is a wonderful patch of precious rainforest. Madidi is a tragic lost opportunity, which now faces an even greater threat: Evo has re introduced a shelved plan for a hydrodam on the Bala narrows at the Andean headwaters of the Beni River. If it were built, it would drown thousands of square miles of Madidi national park.